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Notes from Youville: To Drive or Not to Drive: A Safety Guide

The decision of when the time is right to stop driving can be a complicated and emotional one, as people struggle with issues of losing independence and satisfying the wishes of family members


After a series of medical complications affecting his mobility, one Youville House resident decided to give up driving and donate his car. He no longer has to deal with the costs of car maintenance, gas, insurance or other expenses related to car ownership. 

The choice to give up driving is not always so easy. An estimated 600,000 seniors a year must stop driving due to changes in health and other age-related factors. We all age at a different pace, and while some of us may still be driving into our 90s, others are pressured to give up the keys much earlier. The decision can be a complicated and emotional one, as people struggle with issues of losing independence and satisfying the wishes of family members. How do you know when the time is right for you?

Healthy Driving Habits

After a while, driving can start to seem as natural as walking to the store or making a telephone call. What drivers of all ages too often forget is that driving is inherently dangerous, and these dangers increase dramatically when our physical and mental faculties decline.

If there is a golden rule of safe driving for seniors, it is this: Pay close attention to your health. Undiagnosed conditions that interfere with hearing, vision, judgment and focus can be deadly on the road. Keeping in contact with your doctor can help you stay ahead of conditions like decreased vision, memory loss, hearing loss, and arthritis (to name just a few) before they pose safety risks. Maintaining a dialogue with your doctor enables him or her to provide ongoing advice and help you address any difficulties you may be having.  

Such difficulties don’t necessarily mean you have to stop driving. If steering has become painful due to arthritis, your doctor might connect you with an occupational therapist who can suggest purchasing a softer, easier-to-grip cover for the wheel. If weakened vision is the problem, a solution may be to purchase larger, brightly lit speedometer dials, along with an updated eye exam. If you find yourself getting lost easily, your doctor may suggest familiarizing yourself with the route in advance. Preprogramming directions into a GPS before setting out can be helpful. All sorts of adjustments can be made, and the better you understand your needs and weaknesses as a driver, the better you’ll be at addressing those weaknesses.

Retiring from the Road

While there are no hard and fast rules, here are a few telltale signs that it may be time to stop driving:

  • If a family member, friend or doctor urges you to stop
  • If vision or hearing issues become more serious
  • If you have trouble moving your head from side to side.
  • If you have Alzheimer’s or short-term memory loss
  • If your reaction time is slower than it used to be
  • If you have any reason to believe your legs can’t quickly slam on the brake pedal

While many senior drivers may be inclined to resist appeals from family members to stop driving, that same appeal from a doctor can be more convincing. 

While doctors in the United States don’t play a decisive role in determining driver eligibility, studies in Canada show that our roads might be safer if they did. In 2006, Ontario provided financial incentives for doctors to report relevant health changes in senior drivers to licensing authorities. Researchers found that the patients who received warnings were 45 percent less likely to get into serious accidents.

The American Medical Association suggests that doctors adopt tests to help seniors determine their driving ability. Tests that involve motor skills and cognitive ability allow doctors to assess reaction time and motor skills, and can provide valuable insights into an individual’s limitations as a driver.  

Benefits of Giving up Driving

It may seem that giving up driving is like surrendering a basic human privelege, but giving up driving can also come with surprising benefits.

Financially, the burden of gas, registration renewals, maintenance, insurance costs, parking and moving fines are forever swept away. You reduce your impact on the environment while also gaining opportunities for improved health: You’re likely to do more walking, take public transportation, and in general get more exercise. Additionally, you’re eliminating your chances of getting into a dangerous accident where you or someone else could be injured.

Once freed from the confines of your automobile, new modes of communal transportation will likely lead to more social interaction and an enhanced sense of fellowship with others. 

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